Video recording of Panama City, Fla., spring break at which gang rape occurred.
CBS Evening News, April 12, 2015, screenshot

Like many, I’ve been following the news story about a 19-year-old woman who was publicly gang-raped during spring break in Panama City, Fla. Dozens of people watched or recorded the incident, which is how it came to the attention of authorities who were investigating an unrelated crime in another state. The woman, who was semiconscious during the assault, alleges that she was drugged and has little recollection of the incident. So far, two men—both Troy University students—have been arrested.

Video of the assault, thankfully, isn’t publicly available—even though it’s only a matter of time before someone could post it online—but Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen described it as “the most disgusting, sickening thing I’ve ever seen.”

I’m horrified by this story, which is perhaps every woman’s worst nightmare, but I can’t say I’m surprised by most of it. The one thing that raises my (manicured) eyebrows is wondering, “How did this 19-year-old woman get left behind?” According to reports, she was found unconscious on a beach chair. Where were her friends? Surely she didn’t go to spring break alone, and that type of event usually isn’t a couples’ getaway. She had to have some girls. Where were they?

I’ve babysat my fair share of drunken friends (and to be fully transparent, in my early 20s, I also needed a babysitter on more occasions than I’m comfortable publicly admitting). It is beyond annoying to be with the friend who can’t hold her liquor and wants to act up or throw up or pass out. But two of the codes of womanhood and drinking are, “No woman left behind” and “We go together, we leave together.” Period.

No one likes to spend the night in the venue bathroom, leave early and head back to hold someone’s head over the toilet, but everyone with sense does it to avoid what happened to this 19-year-old girl here. Who in their right minds let the drunken—or drugged—friend wander off or, worse, knew that she was out of it and parked her on a beach chair because they didn’t want to turn down yet?

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This part of the story is shocking to me, but everything else? I’m sickened, saddened but, as I said, not surprised that it happened—nor that there were so many bystanders who did nothing. This assault is a worst-case scenario, but women being assaulted at spring-break destinations and other large gatherings for partygoers isn’t uncommon or new. At the events I’ve been to or, better, used to go to—note the past tense—I always felt that there was an undercurrent of sexual violence, an assault waiting to happen. I never felt that the other attendees were going to have my back. And that’s why I stopped going.

I never went to spring break in Panama City, but I did go to the Black Greek Festival in Philadelphia in the late ’90s. To be fair, the vast majority of the attendees were well-behaved students who showed up to see the step shows and spot some cuties. But as I was walking through the park with my girls, I spotted two women dancing suggestively on top of a truck that was blaring whatever the hot song was at the time. A group of guys had gathered around the truck to watch and record the women, who were dressed in bikini tops and “batty riders.”

Even in my inexperienced youth, I knew that wasn’t going to end well. I looked over at a nearby officer who seemed exasperated watching the scene. When he caught me watching him (with a look that wondered, Why aren’t you doing anything?), he said something like, “I don’t know why these girls do that.” 

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Suddenly the group of guys began pushing the truck, shaking it and trying to knock the girls off and into the crowd, where only God knows what would have happened to them. The officer sighed and strolled—not ran—to break up the melee. I got the feeling that this sort of thing happened all the time.

Later the same day, I was walking down Philly’s crowded South Street with my friends that afternoon, wandering in and out of stores. I was wearing a knee-length skirt and a halter top—appropriate, even overdressed, for my surroundings. (I only add the description of my attire for the people who think that the way a woman is dressed is an invite to be assaulted. It is not.)

Some trinket held my attention and I stopped to look quickly as my friends continued on. When I looked up, my friends had crossed the street. I walked over to catch up with them and was caught at the light. When the light changed, there was a group of guys, maybe five, coming toward me. I didn’t think much of it—until they surrounded me at the midway point and, in the middle of street, groped my breasts, my stomach, my butt, between my legs, my thighs and wherever they could reach.

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I started screaming, and they just laughed and moved on. It happened so fast—and I was surrounded—that my friends weren’t even sure what occurred. They just heard me screaming. I was shaken up, and they consoled me at the curb, but no one made a big deal out of it, not even me. It could have been worse, I figured. Even though I was a new adult and just being introduced to the festival scenes, I’d already deduced that it was one of those things that “just happen” at mass public events, even the “good ones.”

On the car ride back to the hotel, my friends exchanged horror stories about all the crazy things that had happened to them at festivals. Everyone had a story—or many—about being groped, or being approached and being afraid, or worse. It didn’t make me feel better, just sad that being assaulted in some form was—and still is—an unsurprisingly common and even expected part of young women’s lives. 

Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.